Anyone who is familiar enough with Stoicism has probably heard of the Stoic motto live in agreement with nature. In fact, the Stoics believed that virtue consisted of a life in harmony with nature. So to live in agreement with nature meant that one will live a virtuous life. So what is the Stoic idea of the meaning of life? Well, for a Stoic, the meaning of life is to live a virtuous life.
But is it that simple? Yes and no. A life of virtue needs to be explained. First of all, virtue consisted of four different virtues known as justice, temperance, practical wisdom, and fortitude. Practical wisdom meant understanding the true nature of good and bad. The Stoics believed that good and bad could only reside in our rational soul and all things external to the rational soul of a person are neither good nor bad, but indifferent, which means they make no difference to our wellbeing or eudaimonia. Our rational soul consisted of our will and judgment and so our judgment and will do make a difference to our wellbeing. Temperance is a virtue that concerns overcoming our irrational belief that externals like wealth and health are good when they are merely preferred, and make no difference to our wellbeing. Fortitude is a virtue that concerns overcoming our irrational belief that externals like poverty and sickness are bad, when in fact they are dispreferred but make no difference to our wellbeing. Finally, justice is the virtue that requires us to be kind and fair towards others.
But we’re not entirely done with unpacking what a virtuous life in agreement with nature entails. Not only did the Stoics believe that a virtuous life led to eudaimonia, or wellbeing, but they also discussed how pathos is a result of foolishness or amathia (amathia means lack of wisdom). Zeno of Citium defined pathos as “a bad feeling that is a commotion of mind which is repugnant to reason and against nature.” For example, fear or dread is a result of our false belief that some event or thing is bad or evil. Lust is desire based on the false belief that some external event is good. But only a virtuous soul can be good and only a vicious soul can be bad. So the Stoics believed that a virtuous life, which entailed eudaimonia, also entailed a life free from pathos, also known as apatheia. Apatheia is the cause of much confusion with regard to Stoicism. Apatheia =|= apathy. Apathy tends to mean a state of carelessness about anyone or anything. But the Stoics didn’t believe that. Apatheia, for the Stoics, meant a soul that isn’t disturbed or doesn’t suffer from irrational beliefs and irrational expectations. Because of the Stoics belief in justice, they were required to be concerned with their fellow human beings.
So for the Stoics, the meaning of life is living simply in harmony with nature, which entails a life of virtue, which entails a life of wellbeing (eudaimonia), which entails a life of apatheia, free from suffering. The Stoics believed in living simply in harmony with nature as the meaning of life but there is so much to unpack from that and even more than what this article has covered.